Miscellanea and Ephemeron
03/27/2005 Archived Entry: "Anime review: Ranma 1/2, Season Seven"
Review by K.S. Taylor
There is simply no American equivalent to Rumiko Takahashi's Ranma 1/2 series. Well, maybe… Can you remember the old "Archie" cartoons? Okay, now imagine that instead of just being a high school student, Archie was also a phenomenal martial artist who fell into a magical pool while on a training exercise and now is cursed to transform into a woman when he's hit with cold water and that his and Betty's fathers agreed that they should be married before they were born and now Archie's father is insisting that Archie and Betty become engaged because he and Archie are broke and need a place to stay and that Reggie has fallen in love with Archie when he's in his girl form and that Veronica is also a skilled martial artist who is also cursed and turns into a cat and Jughead turns into a pig and Moose turns into a duck… Okay, so in other words, Ranma 1/2 is pretty much nothing like "Archie." The similarities drop off sharply after taking into account the fact that both series are about high school students who have zany comic adventures. As you may already be able to tell, Takahashi has taken "zany" to levels that are light years away from the standard "We have to spend the night in the haunted mansion so we can inherit from my eccentric uncle" plots of American teen-comedy.
Ranma 1/2 started out as a print comic in 1987, appearing in Shonen Sunday. It was the follow-up to Takahashi's popular Urusei Yatsura series. At that time, Dragonball Z and its hundreds of clones dominated this market. Ranma 1/2 is at heart a parody of the martial arts adventure genre. Episodes in this DVD collection alone feature arcane specialties demonstrated by ultimate masters from the schools of Martial Arts Eating, Martial Arts Tea Ceremony, and Martial Arts Cheerleading (although since I live in Texas, cheerleading as a martial art seems perfectly normal to me...) Ranma and his father are proud representatives of the Anything-Goes School of Martial Arts whose techniques encompass a very, very broad range of strategies for coming out on top in a match. The Anything-Goes School of Martial Arts even has special techniques for necessary skills such as tricking your enemy, running away, or giving up.
Beyond the martial arts genre parody, Ranma 1/2 is also a social comedy. You don't have to be an expert on Japan to know that much of traditional Japanese culture is centered around avoiding situations that might embarrass whatever group one is part of. In a society where an individual could be obligated to kill himself or herself for humiliating their peers, this is a very serious and important consideration. Ranma 1/2 is full of characters who do all they can to break this basic social contract.
Like I alluded to in the first paragraph, Ranma Saotome and his father Genma, broke and out of luck, descend on the Tendo family. Genma and Soun, the head of the Tendo household had been martial arts students together. Not only do the Saotomes impose on the Tendo's hospitality, Genma reminds Soun that the two of them had long ago made a pact that if they each had children, those children should marry so as to solidify mastery of the Anything Goes School of Martial Arts into one family. Fortuitously, Tendo has three daughters and Saotome has a son. A bit awkward for the Tendo girls, though, right? To have some guy show up at your door and suddenly find out he's your fiancé? That would be enough plot material for the entire run of an American situation comedy, but not for Rumiko Takahashi. To take the situation to a much higher plane of social discomfort, the Saotomes were in an unfortunate accident with unusual consequences. While on a training mission to China, they visited Jusenkyo, a valley filled with pools that each carry a curse. If one falls into one of these cursed pools, one transforms into the shape of the animal or person who drowned there. Because the Saotomes are both rather arrogant and careless, they don't read the signs warning them this will happen. The end result is that Ranma Saotome, the surprise fiancé of one of the Tendo sisters, is a teen-aged boy who when hit with water transforms into a petite, voluptuous girl.... Would make some interesting family reunions, right?
Again, we've already got enough plot for an entire series... that would probably be way too racy to run on American television. (Even HBO has shied away from comedies about gender-swapping teenagers thus far. Of course, if it was a reality show, it would be running on the WB right now.) But like the ginsu knife, Ranma 1/2 keeps on going. This is only the first episode. From here, things start to get crazy. In almost every episode, Takahashi adds new characters with bizarre problems who make the Tendo and Saotome families' lives together more and more difficult.
The thing that makes Ranma 1/2 my all-time favorite anime series is that despite the incredibly high level of sheer zany-ness of the situations, Takahashi's writing still keeps me caring about the characters. Most anime comedies I watch the same way I would watch a train wreck on Mars, thinking "I can't believe I'm actually seeing this. I can't understand what is happening. And yet I can't quit watching." I watch Ranma 1/2 with a foolish hope in the back of my head that somehow someday things will work out for these crazy little people who are trying so hard in the face of very uncooperative circumstance to have a normal life. (Then again, I was the sort of kid who kept watching the adventures of Gilligan and his friends thinking that this week they'd surely manage to get off that damned island.)
Takahashi has created for Ranma 1/2 a whole slew of her trademark romances that -- despite coming excruciatingly close -- never quite work out. Would-be lovers are star-crossed not only by fate but also by their own personality flaws which prompt them to say and do exactly the wrong thing at just the perfect moment. Chief among these ill-fated relationships is the one between Ranma and Akane, the youngest of the Tendo girls. Her sisters elected her to be Ranma's fiancée over her strident objections. When she protests that she doesn't want to be engaged to a weirdo who turns into a girl, her sisters say, "Well, that's okay. You don't like boys, anyway." Akane, unlike the ideal demure Japanese heroine is assertive, independent, and loud. She's an excellent all-around athlete and is a serious student of the martial arts. In classic comedic style, she and Ranma instantly hate each other but grow very fond of each other as the series progresses. Of course, both are too proud to admit to their growing attraction after having loudly proclaimed their hatred of the other on their first meeting and many occasions afterwards. Usually moments of tender understanding on the part of one of the pair tend to coincide with moments of frustrated outrage on the part of the other. "Ranma no baka!" (Ramna's stupidity!) is Akane's signature cry. This collection contains some classic Ranma/Akane moments, including one episode where circumstances force Ranma to publicly say "I love you!" to Akane and another hilarious one where they run around holding hands and calling each other "Honey" and "Baby" for half the episode.
An example of how Takahashi chooses to complicate this already complicated relationship is the addition of the character of Ryoga to the mix. Ryoga is in many ways Ranma's mirror image. He is also a phenomenally talented (though directionally impaired) teen-aged martial artist who fell into one of Jusenkyo's cursed pools (Ryoga turns into a cute little black pig.) His life is centered around his quest to revenge himself on Ranma for offences so heinous neither of them would speak of them at first. (It turns out that it's because Ramna used to break in line in front of Ryoga in the cafeteria in primary school… Oh, don't pretend like you don't have lifelong feuds with people for the same reason.) Despite his supernatural strength and power, poor Ryoga always ends up coming in second place to Ranma. In this DVD collection, there is one multi-part episode in which Ryoga gains the upper hand for a while by mastering a technique where he gains power from being miserable. Poor Ryoga! Unlike Ranma, he almost instantly falls madly in love with Akane, who thinks of him only as a friend and is unaware that the cute little pet back pig she loves to cuddle and take to bed with her is actually her embarrassed but enraptured would-be suitor. A lot of episodes get mileage from contrasting Ramna's difficulty in committing to Akane with Ryoga's desperate desire to do so. There are several good Ryoga episodes in this collection. In one he gets close enough to replacing Ranma as Akane's fiancé to start debating with himself about what pet names they will call each other after they are married. (If you can't tell, Ryoga is my favorite character. I'm just a sucker for the underdog… or under-pig in this case.)
Season 7 was the final season of Ranma 1/2. Like every other hard-core Ranma 1/2 fan, I believe that the first season of the anime series was the artistic apex of the entire run. The storylines stuck closely to the already excellent manga. The comic timing was flawless. The art was attractive and creative. To top it all, season one has the cutest, peppy-est theme song ever danced to by an animated panda or pig. So of course, it was a complete ratings failure. Ranma 1/2 was briefly taken off the air for retooling between the first and second season. With all the puzzling cultural differences that show up when watching or discussing anime, it may be reassuring to know that "retooling" means "to make crappier" in both English and Japanese. The second season abandoned character development in favor of crazy martial arts action. The quality of the artwork suddenly dropped to American Saturday morning levels and the pace of the show was ratcheted up to stupid. And of course in the logical way that television works all over the world, the series suddenly became a huge hit. Ranma 1/2 spent the rest of its run trying to recover from the second season, in my opinion. Season 7, like seasons 3-6, is a mixed bag. There are a few crappy second season style episodes scattered on these disks. However, there are some really good story arcs in this collection. Old friends and enemies make appearances. All of the regular cast members get a turn in the spotlight. We even finally get to meet Ranma's mom. Season 7 is a definitely a big, yummy, Chinese dumpling of a treat for the true Ranma 1/2 fen. I am still smacking my lips in delighted satisfaction.
However, as usual, I must register a complaint about paucity of extras on this collection of DVDs. You can choose to listen in either English or Japanese with or without subtitles. There is even a short documentary about the cast of the English version celebrating the completion of their final episode… which might be much more interesting if I didn't always listen to the show in Japanese. But that's it as far as extras go. Ranma 1/2 is a series that really calls for footnoting. The series constantly features everyday Japanese customs that are completely alien to the U.S. audience. Plots and characters depend on knowledge of unfamiliar Asian folktales and celebrations. Even characters' names frequently have double meanings. Shampoo's name, for instance, is a pun in three different languages. VIZ could at least include the same story synopses and short character background descriptions they put in the front of the Ranma 1/2 manga they publish.
Overall, though, if I had to summarize my evaluation of this DVD collection… Let me put it this way -- if I were an anime character, my eyes would be big hearts and there would be little black cupid pigs of joy floating around my head... which would cause talk down at the Dollar General, I'm sure. Ranma 1/2 is masterpiece of anime comedy. Takahashi's series manages to walk the fine line of being simultaneously outrageous and charming. Season 7 is a fitting finale to this great series. Ranma 1/2 is like nothing you'll ever see in the U.S.... unless we have a very special season of "The Simpsons" where Bart and Homer travel to China and then move in with the cast of "The O.C." with regular guest shots from the cast of "Sabrina, the Teen-Aged Witch" .. Hey, maybe I could be a T.V. executive after all...
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